The Hindu of Saturday 4 November 2017 covered the World Food India conference and exhibition in Delhi with headlines on the Business page that informed me much about the development discourse centered around business, and the continuing neglect of agriculture and rural India.
The first of three headlines is ‘PepsiCo Leads ₹68,000 Crore plans for Food Sector’ with the Akali MP from Punjab and minister for food processing industries quoted ‘we have signed MoUs worth ₹68,000 Cores on the first day…’. $10.2 billion, an impressive amount by any calculation.
From whom has the government obtained this investment? PepsiCo, Coca Cola, ITC and Patanjali. Each one of these worthies vend us products that are known to create diseases ranging from digestive disorders, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Processed foods are shot full of the Great Evils (pesticides, fertilisers) and the Greater Evils (sugar, salt, oil, preservatives). These four companies, and their clones, are the ones to which our lazy government would outsource food distribution fully if they could, instead of creating eco-systems for family farmers to grow and sell food without chemicals, help them diversify their production from wheat and rice to a range of rapidly disappeared traditional foods (like millets), fruits and vegetables, and establish vibrant local fresh produce marketing farmer markets where processing of food simply isn’t needed. But governments are not interested in the genuine health of the population, politicians and bureaucrats live in a rarified world where they are wined and dined by corporate executives influencing them to help them make money, and where they cement privilege and make money for themselves.
FM and PM Chime Together
‘Food processing to be major growth area: consumer choices to fuel change says FM’. Our highly intelligent, knowledgeable, wealthy lawyer turned economics guru Arun Jaitley tells us how “the farm to kitchen chain is going to change in India, with increased agricultural production …. and changing consumer preference”. Who, I wonder, is the consumer he is referring to – the adivasi in the forests, the marginal and small peasant, the landless Dalit, the urban dispossessed? And who is going to change these consumer preferences? The same food processing corporations that most probably paid him to appear in the courts on their behalf all these years? More Coke and Pepsi, more sugared packaged fruit drinks and juices, more potato chips, more chocolates, more fried snacks: these foods are what got him to undergo bariatric surgery in the first place, and he wants to impose that on the rest of wealthy India, forget poor India?
‘Private Sector Must Invest More in Contract Farming: PM’. This headline made me fume as it betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of land-poor India, but it was quite chilling to read Mr. Modi’s entire inaugural speech. Written by a bureaucrat, as there is too much detail in this for him to know himself seeing that he is quite ignorant of the real issues of rural India, agriculture and nutrition for the poor, his recommendation for contract farming was par for the course. The whole approach of a World Food exhibition in Delhi where ‘200 companies from 30 countries, 18 ministerial and business delegations, close to 50 global CEOs’ have gathered to evaluate India as a market for selling their products and as an outsourcing hub is so antithetical to a hungry nation a vast proportion of whose population specially the women and children are malnourished, unhealthy and nutritionally challenged. His speech is targeted to the corporations, to the consuming middle and aspiring classes and holds no hope to the poor. We have overflowing central granaries of wheat and a seriously underfed population; and we also have states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala that have a successful model for a food and nutrition social net for the public and the best health indicators in India (while much needs to be done, including moving away from rice to millets, lentils, fruits and vegetables). And we have a PM who talks blithely of food processing and packaging, food parks, honey, and export of fish.
This is very much a part of chemical farming and consumerist thinking, not an alternative to it. I expect more, much more, from our leader. Alas, there is nothing other than development coming, and we cannot run and hide anywhere from this deluge.
Development for whom and to what purpose is forgotten within the dominant focus on the consuming urban classes, the profits of corporations and the need for the government to showcase investments flocking to India. How much of this will reach the farmer as higher procurement prices? Won’t most of this flow back to the corporations as profits? Is there enhanced livelihood security for the small and marginal farmers (80% of our peasant households) from this investment? And does this in any way enhance nutrition security for the over 300 million who live below the (terribly low) poverty line of Rs 27 a day?
This is not a partisan issue as all political parties are complicit in equating development with ‘GDP growth’ and ‘FDI’ and not in investing in education, health and livelihoods that directly impact the wellbeing of the poor. The World Food Fair, it seems to me, is a bare indictment of our very unequal society where the politician, businessman and bureaucrat work in tandem for the profits of faceless corporations, and is part of the continuing Great Turning Away from the poor across the villages of India.
How many new jobs will be created in heavily automated food processing factories? And how many will go to the youth army of the unskilled unemployed? By their very nature, global corporations will import sophisticated machines and labor eliminating attitudes from their home economies to run these new factories.
How many small farmers will benefit? My estimate is already wealthy larger farmers – a very miniscule number in well-irrigated parts of prosperous regions of India – who contract farm for the corporations will make money from these factories: like the kinnow farmers in Punjab, and potato farmers in Haryana.
How many farmers will, or indeed should, eat this processed and packaged food? Clearly, these foods are targeted at the relatively prosperous urban and rural classes (those earning more than Rs 50,000 a month per household), those who can afford to buy processed and packaged products and those to whom the aspiring lower middle classes (those earning between 20,000 and Rs 50,000 a month per household) look up to help define their eating habits. Witness the wild success of Maggi.
Food security and nutrition – two very different things – is a mirage for most of our population, and none of them will benefit from the poisonous processed foods these companies will retail and none of them will be able to afford these products in terms of the short term (cash) or the long term (health) costs.
What is smothered by the development discourse by liberals and conservatives both is the critical issue of health sovereignty as we increasingly cede our rights to choose healthy, fresh unprocessed foods to corporations. This has already happened in the richer nations (where family farms are almost non-existent) and there is sufficient awareness and scores of scientific studies about the long-term deleterious affect corporate monoculture farming for the consumer economy has on the global environment. Corporations, global and Indian, sell food that panders only to our taste and convenience, brings them profits, and destroys public wellness. Not surprisingly then, the profitable privatization of public health in India – as the government retreats – is in tandem with this increasing corporatization of food.
Why are we silent? We demand that organic producers of food label their food as such and have stringent checks and penalties for misrepresentation (rightly so) while unnaturally grown foods with overdoses of unbalanced chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and preserved with chemicals, sugars, salts and fats have no warning that eating these will surely destroy our health and that of our children?
This is another deeper systemic issue – even the most well-intentioned government, if something like that exists, couldn’t think about public health and wellness in an integrated manner. Like corporations where inter-department conflict is endemic, governments are divided into education, farming, health, food processing, sports as distinct ministries. There is no conversation between these for the collective purpose of defining and working towards true public health: the absence of communicable and lifestyle disease through science and natural agriculture.
What To Do
A healthier citizenry should be a key objective of development, and therefore the government must stop each Ministry from thinking within its own fragment. We must stop moving in the direction of more corporate control of our food and instead increase the availability of wholesome, organically grown foods by our vast numbers of family farms who will thus make a more respectable living. Urban farming must be encouraged, enabling more to engage with growing food (and the transformation that brings) rather then only consume. The foods more people consume need to be diverse – a multitude of locally adapted millets, lentils, fruits and vegetables – and brought to the people by a vast network of efficient small markets and doorstep extension services provided y the government to farmers. The government must simultaneously find ways to support prices for the producer and make it affordable for the consumer.
At a practical level, urban consumers reading this blog must become aware of what they eat – certainly ask tough questions of organic retailers and farmers, but more importantly ask even more difficult questions of the companies who sell you packaged and processed food. This questioning of the new normal of grocery store food and rethinking what is good for your health could be the best thing you ever did for yourself and your family. Perhaps, give up a visit to the malls one weekend and visit an organic farm.